November 2022 Authors
Meet Rae Chesny: The Zora Girl
Can you tell us about how you got started with your author journey?
I have been publishing children’s books since 2014. The journey into being a children’s author started when I found myself miserable working 12-16 hour days for my corporate job in my early 20s. I was also living in a mountain valley, 8 hours away from family and friends. After experiencing great success in the company, suddenly followed by a toxic work environment created by my manager, I knew I needed a change. Especially when I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Before long, I had panic attacks just entering the building. I knew there was more to life than this job that made me miserable, so I took a self-appointed sabbatical without a plan. During that time, I just submitted to the idea of not working and enjoying life to the fullest. A few weeks into this sabbatical, I found a story I had written in 6th grade. It was a miracle that I still had it after moving around constantly since the age of 18.
Finding that story was like meeting myself again. I began my journey into publishing and even tried my hand at penning another children’s story called "Niko and the Trouble Bubble" for my godson. A week later, I got a call from an old schoolmate working at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. She asked if I still liked to write and if I had written anything lately. Then, in a serendipitous moment, she invited me to read at the Wright Museum’s For the Love of Literacy Fair during the annual African World Festival. Seeing how the children and their parents responded to "Niko and the Trouble Bubble" had me sold. I vowed that writing children’s books would be what I would do for the rest of my life. It’s been a fantastic journey. I have had amazing people like the founder of this magazine, Le’Marqunita Lowe, who shared invaluable advice that helped me along the way.
"I vowed that writing children’s books would be what I would do for the rest of my life. It’s been a fantastic journey. I have had amazing people like the founder of this magazine, Le’Marqunita Lowe, who shared invaluable advice that helped me along the way".
What are some of your favorite books?
I am really into reading across genres right now. I just finished reading Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, The Reel by Kennedy Ryan, and When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten. I would have to say reading books as an author is like studying, so I love them all and get something different from each one. I greatly appreciate the process of getting stories on the page, so my readership is always one of gratitude. Regarding books that have wowed me, I would say How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi are at the top of my list. Zora is in a category all her own.
You are a mom. I absolutely love how you balance being a mom and an author. How has being a mom influenced your daily life?
Thank you. Motherhood and working are constantly a juggling act. Cam has given me so much in terms of storytelling. As he gets older, I see firsthand the value of storytelling with him. He has this huge imagination and approaches reading with a mind as curious as mine. We rewrite the stories he reads orally. We also take opportunities to create stories whenever and wherever we feel inspired. This past year, Cam had to start seeing an orthodontist because his lower jaw is too small for his 6-year-old molars. His first appointment resulted in him having to get his teeth pulled. Of course, I was as anxious as he was. So I came up with the idea to make up a story on the spot for him as a distraction. We now do that at every dentist appointment. His orthodontist has raved about the idea and Cam’s progress since we started that tradition. It’s funny because if I forget to tell a story, he reminds me immediately. Sharing my storytelling gift with Cam, and using storytelling to shape his life positively and creatively is probably one of my favorite things about being a mother. When it comes to getting actual writing done, I have to do it in snatches of time, which can be very challenging. I don’t have an answer for how it works out. I just do what I can and keep a practical mind about it. I can’t lie and say that it is easy, though.
Now let’s talk about Zora Neale Hurston. What inspired you to publish a book about Zora?My life as it is has been one unexpected journey that I am so grateful for. Becoming a Zora Neale Hurston Scholar is one of the most amazing things that have happened along the way. Creating literacy camps around my children’s books led me to Zora Neale Hurston. A professor out of Michigan State University had invited me to campus to be a part of the Black History Series he had started in 2018. His students had been facilitators in my after-school programs for two years in alignment with his community engagement courses. Per the students’ enthusiastic reaction to the program and my guest lectures on campus, he thought I would be a great addition to the series. He asked me to present the historical author who most influenced my writing career. I was a reluctant reader as a child, which followed me into adulthood, so I didn’t have anyone. But it was a paid gig. In true entrepreneur fashion, I knew I could make it work.
I chose Langston Hughes because he was the King of the Harlem Renaissance and featured proletariat protagonists in his poetry. Being a new mom, poetry was a great move because I could quickly brush up on it. Well, as I did my research, I felt no connection to Langston on a personal level. But Zora Neale Hurston kept popping up. I discovered that she was raised in the first all-Black municipality in the history of the United States. Her father had written some of the town’s laws and served as mayor three times. She was a trained anthropologist and the only Harlem Renaissance contemporary to carry a formal eduation in that social science. I was floored when I learned she was Langston’s best friend during the Harlem Renaissance. That first year, I presented on Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. But vowed if I ever got another shot, Zora would be the star of my show. She has been ever since then.
Like many people, I had grown up unfamiliar with Zora. Admittedly, when I was assigned "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in high school, I didn’t read it. The text and its fantastic author were not presented in meaningful ways to me. Present day, I have read every one of Zora’s seven titles. I have devoured more information on her than any other subject. Because I understand the necessity of meaningfulness on an individual level, I wanted to craft books about Zora that grip people’s attention and make them curious. My goal is always the same for presentations and the Zora books I write. I want to help the audience member or reader to experience Zora in a new way causing them to become curious about her. I hope they will start their own research or read Zora’s work with new eyes after experiencing my books and presentations.
"Because I understand the necessity of meaningfulness on an individual level, I wanted to craft books about Zora that grip people’s attention and make them curious. My goal is always the same for presentations and the Zora books I write."
You have some cute and amazing children’s books. Can you tell us more about your children’s books, and why you decided to work with young kids?
My latest title, Zora’s Garden, blends fact and fiction to honor that incomparable Zora Neale Hurston by celebrating her storyteller roots that date back to childhood. This children’s book is undeniably the best story I have ever written and book I have published. It takes my scholarly research and blends it with my creative writing in a seamless fashion. It is reminiscent of how Zora took her anthropological work and used it in her novels and short stories. It also features the usage of dialogue in dialect, as Zora was ostracized in her lifetime for collecting folklore, interviews, and writing in AAVE. It’s just another way I honor who she was as a revolutionary. Out of all the books that I have written, children don’t move when I read Zora’s Garden. Parents have told me that their children, who are reluctant to read, devour the pages of Zora’s Garden without being asked. My own son cried the first time he heard it. I think it is undoubtedly the ancestral connection the book leverages. I must admit that I cried when I saw the beautiful way my illustrator brought Zora to life as a child.
I write for and work for children because I remember being shamed for being a reluctant reader and not feeling like my ideas mattered as a storyteller. Not liking to read had all these implications, like I wasn’t smart or couldn’t succeed in life. But everyone isn’t born with a love for reading. So I use my experience to overcome those barriers with children in exciting and meaningful ways. Most children who are averse to reading change their minds when they are offered an opportunity to become storytellers themselves. So I created a youth author program called Junior Storyteller in 2017.
I noticed that you are into gardening. What are some current fruits and vegetables growing in your garden? Did you teach yourself gardening skills?
This is our third year gardening, and it’s all thanks to Zora Neale Hurston. As I was doing my research, I discovered the common theme of gardening throughout her life. She really loved it, and I think it was how she maintained her mental health. It also allowed her to remain nourished in seasons of financial hardship. Before I had the idea to write Zora’s Garden, Cam and I actually named our garden “Zora’s Garden". We garden intuitively and trust nature to do its thing, which has resulted in many bountiful harvests. This year we grew cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, carrots, beets, corn, pumpkins, broccoli, peaches, and pears. We added a raised bed of flowers in front this year to support our pollinators.
Can you let the readers know more about “Junior Storyteller Kids?”
Yes. Junior Storyteller is a creative story writing program for children ages 5 and up. The program shows children my story writing process and coaches them through making up their own stories. Junior Storyteller offers workbooks levels 1-5, with 5 being the most advanced activities, including story vocabulary and parts. It also has an online self-paced course. In addition, parents can apply to have their children work with me directly through the 1-on-1 mentoring component. After completing the manuscript, Junior Storytellers receive a professionally illustrated hardcover keepsake copy of their story as a book. Others may also publish their book through the publishing aspect of the program.
The goal of Junior Storyteller is for each participant to experience the power of their voice in tangible form. Doing so inspires confidence, positive self-expression, pride, and agency. Thus far, participants have gone on to perform better in school and have positive changes in behavior, leadership skills, and interest in literacy-based activities.
Becoming an indie author takes bravery, creativity, and hard work. Can you give some advice for authors who want to pursue self-publishing?
I would say treat it as a journey. There will be as much excitement and fun. But, there will also be hard lessons and feelings of failure. It is a daunting and meticulous process. So just don’t give up and don’t be too hard on yourself. I have been doing this since 2014, and there is still so much to learn. But if you persist, you will be immensely proud of your progress. I often say that Zora’s Garden is the answer to every “why” I have asked during this journey.
Also, if you can, get help. Talk to other people at varying stages and experience levels regarding self-publishing. Be willing to invest in your learning process as a self-published author. As time allows, I assist select individuals in their publishing journey as a publishing consultant.
Outside of writing and publishing, what are some of your other passions?
I would say gardening is probably my top passion outside of writing, which works to keep me grounded. Other than that, I am super passionate about giving talks on Zora Neale Hurston and sharing her life and legacy in any way I can. I love music and often wish I could sing. But God knew better than to give me that gift. Haha
Photos by: Evan Chesny and Amanda Claire